Michelle Quist: Time to apologize for church’s racist history

(Courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson and his wife, Wendy, are greeted by NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson at the NAACP's 110th annual national convention in Detroit on Sunday, July 21, 2019.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should apologize for its racist history.

There, I said it. I’m not the first person to say it, and I won’t be the last.

This past Monday marked the June 8 anniversary of the lifting of the “priesthood ban,”which banned black men from holding the priesthood for over 125 years. But it was more than just a priesthood ban. Women also couldn’t enter temples or receive the ordinances the church says are required for exaltation. Black families couldn’t be sealed together. There was no doctrinal justification for it; it was simply racist.

The church has made efforts to improve upon its history in the past few years, including its “Be One” celebration in 2018. Which is why its failure to apologize stings so badly.

The irony, of course, is that the church is calling on others to repent. Church President Russell M. Nelson recently stated, “We abhor the reality that some would deny others respect and the most basic of freedoms because of the color of his or her skin.” The statement also said, “Any of us who has prejudice toward another race needs to repent.”

Except that few people would actually identify themselves as being the subject of this call to repentance. Especially, apparently, the church itself.

According to the church, repentance requires one to “seek forgiveness from those you have wronged, and restore as far as possible what has been damaged.” In other words, the wrong needs to be acknowledged.

The church’s essay on Race and the Priesthood includes a statement that the church didn’t allow men to hold the priesthood or black families to participate in temple ordinances. But the passive statement lacked any acknowledgement that these practices were racist, and certainly failed to apologize for them.

The essay explained, “The Church was established in 1830, during an era of great racial division in the United States” as if the racist environment justified its own racism. If it did, similar racist practices would be justified today, because we still live in an “era of great racial division.” The church “disavow[ed]” racist and abhorrent ideas that black skin is a curse, but never apologized for teaching such an idea.

In short, the essay lacks empathy and accountability.

The church has said before that it doesn’t apologize. Elder Dallin H. Oaks said a few years ago that, “I know that the history of the church is not to seek apologies or to give them.” What does that even mean?

Besides, Elder Henry B. Eyring acknowledged the church’s role and expressed “profound regret for the [Mountain Meadows] massacre” in a 2007 memorial service. That sounds like an apology to me (or at least an “almost apology”).

Perhaps the church can follow Missouri’s lead. In 1976 Governor Kit Bond issued a formal apology on behalf of the state of Missouri for that state’s 1838 Extermination Order and its effects on church members.

There’s real hurt here. And we can’t explain it away by saying the church was just a product of its times. The times were horrible. Slavery and extended discrimination are a stain on our nation’s heritage and we need to repent. All of us.

The church has made much of its relationship with the NAACP. The relationship will bear fruit if church leaders recognize they can learn more from NAACP leaders than NAACP leaders can learn from them.

While NAACP leaders are glad for the partnership, they think the church could be, and should be, doing a lot more than hosting self-reliance classes in the inner cities.

The NAACP is “looking forward to the church doing more to undo the 150 years of damage they did by how they treated African Americans in the church,” and by their “endorsement of how African Americans were treated throughout the country, including segregation and Jim Crow laws.”

Indeed. And the church can start with a formal apology.

I can imagine the church wants to just move on. But repentance requires recognition of the wrong. When my young son hits his brother, he doesn’t just get to say he won’t do it again and move on, while the victim cries in the background and nurses his bruise alone. The offending son has to apologize. Personally. For hurting him and breaking the trust between them.

The church isn’t infallible. Neither are its leaders. It’s ok to be wrong at times. After all, that’s what repentance is for.

If the church’s most fundamental message is that Christ atoned for our sins, then Christ atoned for the church’s sins too.

It now needs to repent.

Michelle Quist

Michelle Quist is a columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune.